Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Christians "Endangered Species" in Palestine

Last year's census put Christians at a mere 1.8% of the population of Palestine, according to our two Palestinian Christian guides during our tour yesterday of Birzeit. This made Christians an "endangered species", they lamented. They believed this number to be still decreasing and shared how sad it would be when there were no Christians left in the Holy Land where Jesus lived. They noted the high was 80% during the early Christian period, which greatly declined during the Muslim conquest of the region during the 700s. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, only 40% were Christian and when Israel was created, the census numbered Christians at 27% of the population. From 27% to 1.8 was a steady decrease, I noted, and asked what they thought had caused it. Our guides said that Christian Palestinians were the wealthiest and could afford to emigrate abroad in 1948 and during the subsequent difficult period of occupation. Also, European countries and others were more willing to give visas to Christian Palestinians than to Muslim ones. The guides noted that Christians had been driven out quicker by the Israeli occupation than the Ottoman empire period or original Muslim conquest of the region.

Incidentally, our guides were very quick to point out to the group that not everyone knows that not all Arabs were Muslim and shared with us a conversation he had had with an American from Texas when he was there visiting. The Texan simply did not believe there were any Christian Arabs and refused to believe him when he said he was Christian. Our guide just shook his head and muttered rhetorically, "Are there really people that ignorant in the world?" (Of course, everyone at the table looked at me, as the only American amidst a group of Europeans. I wanted to say, "No, only Republicans are! (Ha ha, just kidding. That was for my Dad and brother's benefit.)

Interestingly, that evening walking home, I ran into my landlord, who motioned me to come with him to see something. I followed him to the back porch of a neighbor's house where a crowd of people were gathered around a statue of the Virgin Mary. The crowd was lighting candles and rubbing the statute with cotton balls. The owner of the house was a Palestinian who lived many years in San Diego and spoke perfect English and explained to me what was going on. She said that a friend of hers had given her this statue about two weeks ago and she had put it in her window on display. After a couple days she noticed the Virgin was covered in oil. She washed it off and then a day or so later, it was again covered in oil. "What kind of oil," I asked? "Olive oil!" They took it as a sign from God of blessings to come and the whole Christian community had come to receive the blessing. (Birzeit is 50% Christian, one of the few towns where Christians are in such high numbers) They even rubbed the statue with a cotton ball for me and I went home with a ball saturated in olive oil in a plastic bag. (I shared with them the definition in Science and Health of oil that included consecration and inspiration and they said, "Yes, we hope so. We need many blessings for our people.")

Monday, August 28, 2006

Friendly neighbors? That's an understatement...

Last night at 10pm I was sitting reading my Arabic children's books and I got a knock on my door. It was a young man who I recognized as my neighbor who lived upstairs. "Mas'al-khair (good evening), come drink coffee." "Thank you for the invitation, but I'm reading," I tried to respond politely. (Again, this is all in the broken English/Arabic exchange that is becoming uncomfortably familiar.) "No, you stay too long in this house. Come and sit down," he urged. Too long, I thought? I had just arrived the evening before and unpacked and had already walked around town. I remembered, though, how Arabs found it very strange for people to spend any time alone and that there were no equivalent expressions for "quiet time" or reflection--there was only the negative word "lonely".

So out I went to sit with him and his friends on our shared porch. They brought me bitter Turkish coffee and sweets and orange juice and smoked the hooka pipe and asked me lots of questions. It turned out to be much better than reading those children's books. I actually learned a lot through the question and answer mode. I had brought a book with me and after they were done smoking, my neighbor Wisam said he would help me read the book. It was already late at this point and I said, "Okay, great! But could we do it tomorrow?" "No, we will read tonight." I asked several more times, but he was insistent so he and his three roommates smoked cigarettes and corrected my pronunciation of the silly stories in the children's books. "plate, spoon, fork". Nura likes to eat vegetables. Nura likes to go to sleep, etc." It was pretty amusing, actually.

Today was our first day of orientation and it turns out my experience at JFK was nothing compared to what the rest of the students went through. 4 were denied entry outright; several were subjected to 7-9 hours of questioning; one had her laptop and several pairs of jeans taken. (huh? she had no idea what that was about!) And most of these were blue-eyed Europeans! A couple others were not given any stamp or card in their passport meaning they have to go back to the airport and beg for one. I'm not looking forward to renewing my visa after a couple of months. I'm already daydreaming about possible stories I could make up...I want to convert to Judaism; I'm dying to learn Hebrew; I want to join the Israeli military.

Our program director said the US Embassy reported that the Israeli authorities deny 24 Americans entry into Israel PER DAY. At that rate, it's a miracle I got in. She claimed it was part of an underhanded Israeli policy to isolate the West Bank from outsiders who could get an accurate picture of what life is like for Palestinians and portray that to the outside world, and also to prevent people of Palestinian origin from emigrating back to the region in order to limit their numbers. She said with that in mind, she was deeply touched that we international students came despite the distorted and exaggerated media messages about safety and life in the West Bank, and even though we were not sure it would be safe.

A couple other tidbits from the lectures:

--PAS program established in 88 as a reaction to the first intifadah to get internationals to bear witness to the events.

--Birzeit used to have 400 students from Gaza; now they only have 13 because it's so difficult for them to leave their area and transit to the West Bank.

--Birzeit has been closed by Israeli authorities 15 times for "security reasons". 95 students are in Israeli prisons. They tend to target student leaders and three student union leaders have been imprisoned. (The directors took great pains to explain that these were not militants, just strong and active students. There have never been any militant activities on campus, according to them.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Falafel Hits the Spot

I've sampled quite a bit of falafel, but none has ever hit the spot like this one. The kind that's piled high with hummus, tomatoes, beets, pickles, salad, and onions. Dang, I'm crouching down behind my computer at the internet terminal, praying that the guy at the desk doesn't see me stuffing my face with this goodness. It might be that I was starving and it's 4:15 and I hadn't eaten anything all day. Or it might be the feeling that I've earned this falafel because it was my first time ordering all in Arabic! I walked into this local joint in Birzeit, and everyone turned around to stare. (All men there, of course. The women were probably in the back cooking.) But the man who took my order was extremely nice and thankfully, patient.

I arrived to Birzeit last night after getting a ride out of Jerusalem from the hotel receptionist at the Olive Tree hotel, where I stayed Friday night. (No, Mom, he did NOT kidnap me.) His name was Shweki and he also attended Birzeit until it was shut down in 2000 due to the intifadah. He then transferred to Hebrew University and paid for it on his own, although it was much more expensive than Birzeit. He even got a merit scholarship his second year because of his high marks. He had many interesting stories to tell.

As we drove through the checkpoints and I was aghast at the line that stretched for miles of cars waiting to go from Ramallah to Jerusalem, he told me that it would take him hours to return back to Jerusalem after dropping me off. Shweki noted that only individuals with a blue identity card (meaning citizen of Jerusalem) were allowed in and those with green cards (meaning Palestinians from the West Bank) were never allowed to go to Jerusalem or into Israel. Shweki himself was born in Jerusalem and felt very privileged since he could go back and forth as he pleased, provided he wanted to wait in the checkpoint line. His blue identity card meant he could also work in Jerusalem where there were better paying jobs. The problem, he said, was that he would much rather live in Ramallah, the happening place for Arabs. He had not yet found a wife and there were not many Arabs in Jerusalem, he thought.

He shared a deep desire to travel, which he said is unlikely to come true. Since he was an Arab born in Jerusalem, he cannot get a Palestinian passport unless he turns in his Jerusalem identity card. On the other hand, he paid several thousand shekels to apply for an Israeli passport and was also denied for "security reasons". Shweki laughed at that, saying, "I'm a young, unmarried, Arab male. Those are the security reasons."

We stopped in Ramallah so he could show me the main street filled with shops and restaurants. It was swamped with people, and I was shocked at how many women were not wearing a headscarf and were dressed fashionably. I bought a local cell phone and went to the bank, and then we headed off to Birzeit University. The view was stupendous. We drove all along a ridge where you could see little villages on each hilltop. The scenery is very similar to Jordan, very hilly and rocky, and buildings all in white, beige, and brown.

We arrived at the school in about 10 minutes. Shweki clearly enjoyed showing me around his alma mater and recounted his happy, though brief, school days (he's only 28, so it wasn't that long ago!) We found the PAS office (Palestine and Arabic studies) and I told them who I was. They asked if I had encountered any problems getting into Israel, since 3 PAS students were already denied entry. I shared with the questioning I'd had at JFK, and they said that was pretty light! They said the landlord would be there soon to show me to my apartment and that they would see me on Monday for orientation.

I said goodbye to Shweki and made my way in my landlord's tiny, beat-up car with no door handles and that barely held my huge, heavy suitcase. His broken English and my non-existent Arabic kept conversation to a minimum, but I did not conceal my pleasure when we got to the apartment. It's in the town of Birzeit about 10 minutes away from campus (and in the opposite direction of Ramallah). It is so much nicer than I had imagined! It is in the traditional Arabic style, with beautiful rugs and paintings. My room has a beatiful archway above it and two huge bookcases filled with books I want to read! There is also a sunroom with a beatiful view of the valley below, a family room, dining room, two bathrooms (only one shower) and an ample kitchen. I'll share the house with one other woman who arrives Monday.

I've only been here a total of 24 hours, but it already feels so different. I could immediately tell the difference between here and Baghdad, in that, I'm right in the middle of society here. I'm living with the people, conversing with them in the market, the restaurant, the cafe. My house is right next door to theirs. The Muslim prayer call sounds like it's in the middle of my house. I felt so removed from the outside world in Baghdad--enclosed in a little America inside of an Arab city. We used to call it a prison. There are no walls or barriers here. No separation. That is so freeing, but at the same time, slightly intimidating...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Made it past Mossad

Well, after my grilling at the airport in JFK, I wondered if I would be escorted right out of the airport and sent home. They wondered why I had all these stamps from Arab countries in my passport, why I was travelling alone, just what I would be doing in Israel, my past work experience, my life story, my income, my first-born, etc. It was unbelievable. I didn't break down however and did not say that I was coming to live in the West Bank and study Arabic. (although they probably know it now after monitoring this blog).

It turns out they thought I was a less dangerous terrorist after all and just escorted me and a Palestinian family to the gate and waited with us until we boarded the plane. After that harrowing experience, going through customs and passport control in Israel was a walk in the park. They barely looked at me and asked me a couple mundane questions.

In Tel Aviv, I jumped in a minibus headed towards Jerusalem and stayed at the Olive Tree hotel. (I had booked a much cheaper room at the Mt. of Olives hotel, but it was in an "Arab" area and the minibus driver refused to take me there.) I heard my first Muslim prayer calls last night in a long time, and chuckled at the strange juxtaposition of the wailing from the mosques and Jews decked out in their shabbat white and black suits, huge fur hats, and sideburns down to their shoulders.

Ah, it's so good to be back!! Today I'm off to Ramallah with a Palestinian who works at the hotel who attended Birzeit University himself and said he would take me. The adventure begins!!